Gwinnett PAC aims to speak language of minority voters in Senate runoffs

The Save Our Senate political action committee was formed last week by Gwinnett Democrats with an aim to raise seven figures to help get out the vote among minority groups. Georgia's two U.S. Senate seats are on the Jan. 5 ballot. Getty Images

Ahead of the November elections, Gwinnett County Democratic Chair Bianca Keaton teamed up with progressive activist Nabilah Islam to conceptulaize simple web ads showing community leaders telling Georgians in several different languages to vote.

More than a million impressions later, and after what the two women described as rave reviews from local politicos, they wanted to do it again for the critical upcoming Georgia U.S. Senate run-off elections. But one thing stood in the way: State campaign finance laws forbid a local party from financing ads in an election for federal office.

So what’s the solution? Start a super PAC, of course. These types of fundraising committees can raise and spend unlimited sums to finance independent ads for or against specific candidates in federal elections.

“That’s the thing that we can do as a super PAC that I can’t do as a county party,” Keaton said in a telephone interview. “The super PAC kind of unleashes the world of possibility of the things that you can say and do.”

Enter the Save Our Senate PAC. Keaton and Islam founded the political action committee last week and say they’re going to raise seven figures to help Democrats get out the vote among minority groups that have often been low-turnout voters, and therefore tend to be overlooked by national Democrats.

In short, they said, it’s a super PAC by local people of color, for local people of color, one they hope will help Democrats capture two Senate seats in traditionally GOP Georgia in a Jan. 5 double runoff election that will determine not just who wins the state’s Senate seats, but which party will control a majority in the Senate. Democrat Jon Ossoff is set to face off against Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock is up against appointed GOP U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

The web ads were born somewhat out of necessity, Islam said. After COVID-19 hit, in-person voter canvassing was severely curtailed to contain the spread. Islam felt that hard, she said. 

The 30-year-old was a first-time candidate for the House running in a primary for the state’s 7th congressional district against a candidate favored by the national party. Things seemed to be going well: She was tagged “Atlanta’s AOC” by the national press because of her youth, progressivism and outsider status; she raised a respectable amount of money in the primary; and she earned the financial support of the nickname’s namesake, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), as well as some of her cohorts in the House, like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

But pounding the pavement and meeting voters was a critical part of her campaign, a part that was derailed when the coronavirus shutdowns started in March.

“It was hard to fundraise, it was hard to knock on doors, and so a grassroots candidate like me, just had the rug pulled out from under me,” Islam said. “I don’t doubt that it would have been different. I certainly think there would have been a runoff.”

Islam lost the race to now Congresswoman-elect Carolyn Bourdeaux, who flipped the seat from recent Republican control. But soon after, Islam teamed up with Keaton. They got prominent members of the local Vietnamese, Korean and Latino communities to record simple videos asking, in their native language, to vote. Despite a relatively small ad buy, the videos took off on Facebook. Now the two women want to bring the idea to scale, not just with more ads, but also socially distanced direct voter contact and other outreach, like making sure voters have received their absentee ballots and know what to do if they haven’t.

“Speaking to voters in a way that they’re comfortable with is very important, and it encourages them and mobilizes them,” Islam said.

What sets this PAC apart from the other PACs hurrying into the state, as Georgia becomes the center of the political universe, is that Islam and Keaton know the terrain. They’re local, and so they say they know how to talk to voters in ways that will resonate.

“What often happens is that you get a bunch of organizations that run shiny TV ads, but don’t understand that they’re just tone deaf,” Islam said. “They look nice, but you’re just talking at people and that’s not engaging, that’s just another commercial on TV. What’s going to make you stop and be like, ‘Wow, what this person is saying, what this piece of mail, what the person who was knocking on my door is saying, it’s consequential for my life, and I have to act on it?’”

Islam, who is Bangladeshi-American, says the group wants to focus especially on Asian Americans, a group that makes up about a quarter of a million voters in the state and that votes disproportionately in favor of Democrats.

For Keaton, there’s a personal issue driving her, too. Helping former Vice President Joe Biden defeat President Donald Trump was important to her. But she said the personal stakes grew in recent months, when coronavirus hit home.

“My feelings about Trump were made exponentially worse by the fact that, while they were lying to us and telling us that coronavirus was a hoax, members of my family got sick and three died across the span of three to four days,” she said.

Trump will soon be out of office, but Keaton said she wants to finish the job, and is motivated by a closed congressional insider trading investigation into the GOP Senate candidate’s stock trades. Loeffler and Perdue sold millions of dollars in stock shortly after a closed-door January meeting warning them of the grave threat of the virus. Both were cleared of ethics violations.